IRISH women weren’t welcome when the time came to fight in 1916. Éamon de Valera refused to let them into Boland’s Mills, one of several rebel garrisons around Dublin city. He reckoned they wouldn’t have the stomach for fighting, unlike his men. His fellow rebel leader Ned Daly was of the same mind.
Catherine Byrne, however, was one of 200 women during the Easter Rising who weren’t for turning. She kicked in a window at the GPO on Dublin’s Sackville St, jumped through it and landed on top of another Irish Volunteer so she could get in on the action. Aoife de Búrca, a nurse featured in the RTÉ television documentary Seven Women, got a taxi to bring herself and her luggage into Dublin so she could do her bit.
Still women’s parts were belittled. Margaret Skinnider, for example — who shot several British soldiers as a sniper during the week of fighting and was wounded while setting fire to a British outpost on Harcourt St, and is also one of the characters featured in the documentary — was turned down a military pension because it was assumed to be a combatant was to be male.
Perhaps the most famous image of the rebellion is the picture taken of Padraig Pearse surrendering to Brigadier General William Lowe. Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell stands beside Pearse, but she is obscured. It’s only possible to see her feet. In some of the press photos that did the rounds afterwards, she is airbrushed out of the frame.
“It’s a big sexual politics thing, isn’t it?” says Fiona Shaw, the presenter of the documentary. “Most history in the world has been a male history, but the activity of actually eradicating women from history, particularly that piece of history, at the very moment that the proclamation was declaring that Irishmen and Irishwomen would be equal was quite surprising.”
The documentary makes the point that the women who risked their lives taking part in the Easter Rising — many of whom were forced into roles as couriers, which was more hazardous than, say, sitting in the GPO — would have been better off staying in the United Kingdom, as far as civil rights were concerned, than the society fashioned for them in De Valera’s 1937 Constitution.
“It’s very true,” says Shaw, who was born in 1958, and studied philosophy at UCC before becoming a star of the stage and cinema. “I don’t know to what extent women were conscious when they took part in that revolution that they were in some way heading towards the vote or equality. Some of them, as the documentary states, genuinely thought they were part of a new world where the thinking would be different, but when I think of my own upbringing in Cork and realise how utterly segregated women were from men I’m not sure it didn’t get worse in the ensuing decades.”
She points out how the church was the centre of a town. “Girls weren’t allowed to be altar boys or participate in the church in any way. Women were told that they were a temple for the Holy Spirit and their job was to defend that position only, to be passive, quiet. We learnt the 1916 proclamation at school but just by rote, as though it had nothing to do with us at all. Nobody ever debated it.”
They were brought up to believe that men were more suited to the running of countries than women. “It would be good for women to take more responsibility in the government of Ireland, but the signal we were given was that it was men’s work. That prevailed right into the 1970s: ‘Don’t bother your heads too much with politics; it isn’t for you’.”
In the end it was domestic and medical legislation that allowed equal rights to rear its head. “The issues of contraception and abortion have allowed women to take part properly in the political debate in Ireland. In my time, we were very excluded from the politics of the country. Women didn’t talk about politics very much. I remember I used to go to the debating club at university — ‘The Philosoph’, which was good for a shout — and it was all men debating.”
Countess Markievicz is one of the women profiled in the documentary, which also features an actress, a teacher, a courier and the eye witness Elsie Mahaffy, the daughter of Trinity College’s provost, the great wit John Pentland Mahaffy, who, when asked what the difference was between a man and a woman, responded: “I can’t conceive.”
One of the most jarring episodes of Seven Women is the reconstruction of a scene from the Easter Rising when Countess Markievicz shot an unarmed policeman walking through St Stephen’s Green. “I got him,” she shrieked excitedly. Her comrades shook her hand and congratulated her on her feat.
Markievicz later blazed a trail as the first woman to be elected to parliament at Westminster in 1918, although, tellingly, Sinn Féin only put forward two women in that election. Most of the other women who survived the Easter Rising became marginalised. Some emigrated, some lost their husbands or family members during the War of Independence or the ensuing Civil War.
“Even after the queen’s visit to Ireland, which was such a huge handshake between the two islands that showed it’s best to look forward and not back, there is an opportunity with this centenary to see the unsung heroes of that time, the people who have been shunned, who did not gain by the rising or indeed by the independence of Ireland,” says Shaw. “They gave a lot and they didn’t gain a lot, but it’s lovely that we have a chance to look at them again, brush them down, set them up in proper light and give them due credence.
“It’s a difficult thing to talk about because none of us now wish the thing happened in the way it happened. For a long time, though, we thought it was great the way it happened; the history we were thought at school was that it was marvellous! Or that it was run by an ideology that we would not entirely support now. Revisionism is always going to happen in history, but the one good thing about this centenary is that we have a look at people who I certainly never heard about when I was at school. It’s good to look at these under-sung heroines but also it’s very good for young girls in Ireland to realise that they have a huge part in the inheritance of the country.”